Irish play’s spooky atmospherics veil its plot
I am a fan of Irish playwright (and actor and director) Conor McPherson, especially fond of his plays Shining City, The Weir, and The Seafarer. In that body of work, he explores contemporary angst by conjuring up ghosts, literal and ephemeral. His sharply fashioned dialogue is a study in depth, but crafted in naturalistic rhythms.
It has been a few years since McPherson has graced our stages with new work, so I eagerly anticipated the American premiere of The Veil, a play that debuted about three years ago in London. Bethesda’s Quotidian Theatre is staging the play through Aug. 17.
Yes, it is a ghost story, but it is a period piece, set in an Irish countryside estate in 1822. With his contemporary settings, the ghosts, such as they are, serve the story; here they are the story. I’m not quite certain McPherson has managed to make that work as well as he might.
A haunted house
McPherson takes us to a frayed Irish country house. With the family’s fortunes depleted and the countryside roiling with uneasiness, the widowed Lady Madeleine Lambroke (Michele Osherow), contemplates a sale of the bankrupt estate and its lands.
She arranges a marriage for her lovely, somewhat ethereal daughter Hannah (Chelsea Mayo). Hannah is to be sent to England to wed a wealthy Marquis. She is about to be escorted to London by an old family friend, Reverend Berkelely (Steve LaRocque), a rather dodgy priest with his head in spiritualist clouds.
Berkeley shows up at the manor with an odd traveling companion, the drug-addled, self-styled philosopher Charles Audelle (John Decker). They immediately get the impressionable Hannah into their grasp and try to harness her extrasensory powers to connect with the old house’s spiritually uneasy past. It’s very much The Cherry Orchard meets The Turn of the Screw.
William Fingal (Michael Avolio), the resentful estate manager, has unrequited designs on his mistress and likes to brandish firearms while stomping around the all-purpose drawing/dining/sitting room in filthy boots. Young housemaid Clare (Christine Alexander), who loves the much-older Fingal, schemes to escape to America.
Housekeeper Mrs. Goulding (Stephanie Mumford) struts around as if she’s a member of the family, while Lady Lambroke’s grandmother, called Grandie (Jane Squier Bruns), only occasionally stirs from her dementia to say something simultaneously silly and perceptive.
There’s loud thunder, spooky visions, and long, meaningful glances at a spot in the room where Something Terrible once happened. And, of course, a séance.
There is a contemporary, perhaps timeless, theme to be found here. And that is how we corporeal humans deal with uncertainty about our futures. But it gets overshadowed, as it were, by melodrama and reliance on atmospherics over plot.
The very first thing we experience is an extended creak of an old door opening. It’s mixed with the sound of a steady rain. So we know from the first five seconds that this is to be a moody experience.
But the atmosphere is thin sustenance until about Scene Four in Act One, when things finally pick up. (Yes, it is a long play; the two acts and intermission run about two hours and 45 minutes.)
Gone are McPherson’s naturalistic, modern rhythms. Instead, the period language is florid and stilted. It can still become quite sharp for brief comments, especially when Audelle is enjoying his liquid spirits along with the other kind, aided by generous doses of laudanum. But the playwright seems somewhat lost in this mix he has created.
Are we to think that the growing tension over control of the land with the British, and Ireland’s collapsing economy, are ghostly themes? Fervor over that issue does seem to propel Fingal into a late outburst in which Avolio sharpens the focus with an energetic and informed performance.
But there is much to be talked through here. And talked through again.
The experience is saved for us by uniformly strong performances from the cast. Young Chelsea Mayo, in particular, adds grace and strength with her work as Hannah. She gives us a woman who seems to exist in several dimensions with a layered and subtle power.
The Veil offers more female roles than is usual in McPherson’s work. Mayo and Osherow, who turns in a robust performance as Lady Lambroke, take full advantage of this new aspect of McPherson’s body of work. LaRocque and Avolio project differing styles of strength and determination, and while both are scheming, the priest is devious and the manager is bold and direct.
Director Jack Sbarbori seems stymied by the limitations of his constricted set, however. It is a flat, mostly one-dimensional room, wide and shallow and often filled with the cast.
The house set is neither grand nor especially tattered; it is a bland and dreary space. Berkeley calls the house “a conduit for desperate souls,” but it seems more like the director is desperate for staging ideas.
He arranges his actors as if they are in a tableau, posed, rather than living. It is unnatural to have an entire cast spaced uniformly and facing the audience (and not the kind of unnatural called for by the story line).
Much of the movement seems contrived and mechanical, as if the director knows somebody has to do something. It just adds to the static nature of the scenes in Act One. And the designers do not always seem to be paying attention to the script. When two characters enter the room by saying they were just out for a pleasant moonlight walk, why are we treated to the menacing sound of howling wind?
Energetic second act
Act Two is much better, as the action speeds up, and the plot unfolds. It opens with a burst of energy as the ghost story planted in act one begins to blossom. The themes swirl and collide, but they at least grab and hold our attention.
So there is underlying strength here. If McPherson were to sharpen Act One, paring back some of the ingredients of this pungent Irish stew, it just might be easier to swallow.
The Veil continues through August 17 at Quotidian Theatre Company, which performs at the Writer’s Center Theater, 4508 Walsh St. in Bethesda, Md.
Showtimes: Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. There is also a matinee scheduled for Saturday, August 16, at 2 p.m.
Ticket prices: $30 regular and $25 for students and seniors. For tickets, call the reservation line at (301) 816-1023, or email firstname.lastname@example.org with the following information: Your name; date of performance; number of tickets desired (note senior/student status if applicable); phone number; and email address.
There is a metered (free on Sunday) parking lot across the street from the Writer’s Center, and the theater is wheelchair accessible.